A generation ago, Oriana Fallaci was one of the most famous journalists in the world, interviewing Fidel Castro, Indira Gandhi, Henry Kissinger and the Ayatollah 3`1Khomeini, among other global history makers.
These days she’s hardly remembered, though her influence on television news programs like “60 Minutes” is unmistakable.
Now Lawrence Wright, the New Yorker magazine reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, has devised “Fallaci,” a biographical play in the form of an interview, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
Concetta Tomei stars as the boundary-defying reporter. The director is Oskar Eustis, taking a break from his duties as artistic director of New York’s Public Theater. Wright and Eustis previously collaborated on “The Human Scale,” about Gaza.
Maryam (Marjan Neshat), a journalist assigned to profile the great woman, knocks on the door of Fallaci’s cluttered New York apartment in July 2000 and manages to talk her way in. She’s 25, pretty and Iranian.
Fallaci, cigarette in hand and with “Tosca” playing on the stereo, grants her 25 minutes. She urges Maryam to behave as Fallaci herself would with a reluctant subject: “Attack. Stun them from the start.”
The writer proves she’s up to the challenge, noting that Fallaci has fallen out of the public eye and asking whether she has anything left to say.
“You are perhaps a little cruel,” Fallaci says.
“Thank you,” Maryam replies.
Over the next hour we get a highlights tour of Fallaci’s life and career -- her work with her father in the Italian resistance during World War II, her days as a war correspondent in Vietnam and the Middle East, her encounters with world leaders (the smelly Castro, the “insane” Shah of Iran).
Fallaci’s best story recalls her explosive interview with Khomeini, whom she attacked “because I did not accept to be treated like a maid, like he treats all women.” She questioned why women must wear the chador, a “stupid, medieval rag,” and then took off her head scarf, prompting the shocked Khomeini to flee the room.
Fallaci comes across as fearless and crusading -- and not without vanity. Her stories could be self-serving and sometimes contradict each other.
After a short blackout -- the show runs 90 minutes with no intermission -- Maryam returns to the apartment for another interview. Three years later, the conversation is more didactic. Fallaci reveals her contempt for Islam in the post-Sept. 11 world.
Eustis’s polished production in this world premiere succeeds as a biography of a complicated and not altogether likable person. It’s less effective as theater, with a lot of tell and very little show. Too many lines sound as though they’re quoting from her books and interviews rather than growing organically out of a real conversation.
Accuracy doesn’t trump drama. As Fallaci tells Maryam: “You must be willing to hurt someone to get the truth out of him.”
A soldier, home from the Middle East and jobless, would seem like unpromising material for a comedy. Yet Canadian playwright George F. Walker pulls off the feat, getting plenty of laughs with “Dead Metaphor” in its San Francisco premiere.
Dean meets with a job counselor, Oliver, who asks about his background in the military. Dean says he was a tank driver and then a marksman.
“You’re a sniper?” the bureaucrat asks.
Making a note in his file, Oliver summarizes Dean’s talents matter-of-factly: “You kill people at a distance.”
This appeals to Oliver’s wife, Helen, a brittle, conservative politician, who happens to be looking for an aide with Dean’s skill set. (In making his case for a job, Dean mentions to Oliver that he had 18 kills. “Just so they know I’m efficient.”)
At a backyard barbecue we meet Dean’s wife and his parents. His cranky left-wing father, Hank, suffering from a terminal illness, already knows something about Helen and her political fundraising methods.
The story veers from melodrama to sitcom, aided by clever punchlines and sharp performances of cartoonish characters, especially Rene Augesen as Helen and Tom Bloom as Hank. Directed by Irene Lewis, the story begins to run off the rails in the second act, as the satire moves into plots and counterplots that strain credibility. Still, it’s fun while it lasts.
What the Stars Mean: ***** Fantastic **** Excellent *** Good ** So-So * Poor (No stars) Avoid
(Stephen West is an editor for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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